A Blueprint for a Safer Planet – a review

Nicholas Stern: “A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How we can save the world and create prosperity” (Vintage Books 2010). By way of a critical review.



In 2005, Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, commissioned Nicholas Stern to produce a review for the government on the economics of climate change. The Stern report was published in 2006 and broke new ground in that it identified the costs of not responding to the potential problems of climate change and argued that these would be far greater than taking the required measures to address this global environmental issue. This current text, written towards the end of 2008 – and the timing is important – is by way of a more accessible and popularist up-date of the original report. I want to suggest that it is worth reading and that it raises a number of key areas worthy of consideration for any faith-based engagement with the climate change agenda. Rather than offering a full review, I will draw out specific themes in order to stimulate further debate. My own interest was initially kindled by the combination of environmental, economic and ethical concerns, but there is more to the book than simply this, important though this is for other wider issues.

The title is itself deliberately provocative and suitably ambitious for somebody who has held important academic posts and moves in the highest political circles. This is not a criticism, but is I believe worthy of reflection. If one were to place approaches to the global environmental problems on some sort of spectrum, ranging from optimistic national and international government policy advice at one end, to highly localised and pessimistic and even apocalyptic faith-based responses at the other, then it is clear where this particular book would be located. There are of course two spectrums here, the global, through macro to micro level is one, the optimistic to pessimistic is the other. It is easy to argue that the global to local one is strongly interconnected and that action is required at all levels, but the optimistic to pessimistic one is more complex. One needs to be optimistic in order to get people to believe that action is worth taking and will make a difference, even if the evidence suggests otherwise. The alternative is a form of fatalism which argues that it is all going to be too little too late and that there is nothing that can be done in the first place. Then there is the optimism that genuinely believes that technological and political activity really will provide solutions and that all that is required is to put these into place and everything will turn out alright in the end. It is not entirely clear where Stern stands on this second spectrum. To say that we can save the world AND create prosperity suggests that he believes the technological and political responses can and will avert the worst consequences of climate change and, at the same time, further the cause of economic growth. There are, however, enough warnings about the consequences of failing to take action to lead one to be more pessimistic about prospects for the future.

As I said, the timing of the book is itself significant, in that it was originally published 12 months before the Copenhagen summit of December 2009, and appears to be a plea for appropriate global agreement on action to move towards a low carbon economy and to set targets for CO2 reductions over time. It was optimistic that such agreements would be reached and that such agreements could indeed deliver the safer planet in the title of the book. The problem now of course, given what actually happened, or didn’t happen at Copenhagen, is that the failures of that project lead one to draw far more pessimistic conclusions from Stern’s arguments. Where do global governmental attempts to address the challenges of climate change go from here and are the time scales such that it really will be too little, too late, even if action is taken? It seems to me that this is a real problem with this approach. One needs to put pressure on governments to take action in particular ways by specific deadlines according to this type of argument, and this is linked to an optimistic outcome scenario. If however action is not taken and deadlines not met – which is invariably the case – how can one continue to argue for an optimistic outcome? At what point in the process is it rational to become fatalistic and to admit that nothing can now be done?

Another tension that is clearly present in Stern’s book is that between responses to climate change and responses to the problem of global poverty. Stern is adamant that the two must not be separated but rather addressed in combination. The economic growth of developing nations cannot be threatened or put on hold as a result of actions to alleviate the worst consequences of climate change. This is both a matter of natural justice – one might argue – and of practical politics. Those developed nations who have been responsible for creating the current levels of CO2 emissions, cannot and should not now attempt to pull up the drawbridge behind them and to thereby deny the potential benefits of economic growth to the developing nations. It is however the rapidly developing nations such as China and India who are going to be responsible for continued growth in CO2 emissions to dangerously high levels in the decades to come. How is this problem to be addressed? Then if economic growth and forms of industrial development are essential for poverty relief, what right have the already developed nations to deny this growth, whatever the environmental consequences?

As a governmental policy maker and shaper, Stern cannot avoid these questions and does not attempt to do so. In this he is to be commended as it adds a dose of political and economic realism to the debate. I wonder though where this type of argument sits with those who take environmental challenges to be the spur to create either low growth or no growth economies and question the very goal of economic growth on environmental grounds. Once again, one can see that there is another spectrum of responses on this issue. So, for instance, the Transition Initiative (formerly Transition Towns) movement, which is arguing that communities need to “power down” and to accept that economic growth should not be the goal, in response not only to climate change but also the threat of peak oil, appear to be at one end of this spectrum. Similarly, some material from the New Economics Foundation responding to the current global financial crisis, questions the extent to which economic growth is a legitimate or appropriate goal. My question is where – and of course on what grounds – those of faith are to stand in this crucial issue. Does one side with the political realists and continue to argue that economic growth is indeed required if other global problems are to be addressed, or does one side with the more utopian cohorts who are working towards a different form of localised community-based response irrespective of its impact upon other nations?

Perhaps what this question also highlights is the tension for economists who get involved in this debate, given the assumptions within their academic discipline. This is why Stern’s work is really so very interesting. He is crossing a boundary between disciplines and that is always both a creative and risky enterprise. Stern is aware of this and is keen to produce ground rules, or what I would call “mediating frameworks” which enable him to do this. The language or discourse that he draws on though originates from his own discipline, that of economics. So he talks about the consequences of climate change in terms of market failure, suggesting that the real costs of industrialisation, the externalities of environmental damage and degradation, have to be taken into account if one is to assess the costs of past and future economic growth. Can markets themselves be trusted to take these into account and to shape appropriate future policy? Stern argues against this and makes it clear that the idea of allowing unfettered markets to determine future economic policy needs to be challenged if environmental dangers are to be addressed.

This is a massive debate within the discipline of economics itself and has been highlighted again by the arguments surrounding the global financial crisis and the potential inadequacies of current economic orthodoxy to take account of human behaviour and therefore that of the markets. I won’t go into that here, but will point out that there are a number of faith-based engagements with this including that of the William Temple Foundation (www.wtf.org.uk) and their Religious Futures Network in which I am involved. Dealing with this at the level of economic theory is one thing, but addressing it in terms of practical political policy is another, and one might argue that Stern is rather too optimistic in his assumption that government intervention in the markets is automatically going to be accepted by the full spectrum of political parties. Even if there is a general acceptance that some level of government intervention in the markets is both a reality and a necessity, in some situations, the actual scope and nature of this is surely highly contested politically and raises the spectre of authoritarian government at one extreme, down to more familiar debates about social engineering. This is not to say that Stern is wrong, but merely that he glosses over what is a huge debate in its own right.

Another major area of debate upon which he does make his position clear is that of the deniers of climate change. He is adamant that the science of climate change has come of age and now delivers a high degree of certainty on the effects of human-induced global warming upon the planet. I feel that he argues convincingly that, even if the predictions should prove in due course to be incorrect or ill-founded, then it is far better in any case to have taken the actions proposed than to have taken the risk of not responding. Developing greener technologies and making ourselves less dependent on non-renewable sources of energy seems like a sensible way to go anyway, but he does point out that levels of investment in research into alternative energy sources have actually reduced in recent years, which has to be matter of concern. I just wonder though whether his arguments are strong enough to counter more recent attacks by climate sceptics and, perhaps even more important, the psychological impact of these upon public opinion which seems to be shifting against the apparent scientific consensus on the issue. I worry that the concerns of ordinary people resulting from the impact of the global financial crisis, and possible high levels of unemployment over the medium term, are going to make it more difficult to establish the importance of the environmental debate. If there is such a thing as a hierarchy of needs, or different levels of well-being, then might it not be the case that environmental concerns only kick in once lower levels have already been satisfied? If one is comfortably located within the affluent middle classes and not concerned about one’s employment or sources of income, then it is far easier to give attention to the needs of the planet than if one is struggling to make ends meet and provide for one’s immediate dependents. Perhaps only time will tell on this one!

My final comments on what is an important and helpful book relate to Stern’s attempts to introduce an ethical dimension to the environmental debate. Those of us who approach the issue from a faith base tend to take this for granted, but we perhaps underestimate the degree to which this is a controversial and contested issue within the wider society. Stern’s basic argument in favour of responding to climate change is, after all, economic rather than ethical, and may be seen as appealing to people’s sense of self interest rather than with a concern for the welfare of others. He does however talk at length about our responsibilities for future generations and the difficulty of getting people to recognise that we need to give attention to consequences of our actions that may not even be visible in our own lifetime. I think he is right on this one, and that immediate self interest alone will not be enough to convince most people that this is something they need to address here and now. If one was to be faced personally and immediately by the clear consequences of human induced climate change – and, of course, he argues that this is already the case in some parts of the world affected by sea level rises or severe droughts etc – one would be more likely to see the need to take action. The problem then is that it is probably already too late. What is required is a new ethical imagination perhaps, the capacity to project into the future and well beyond one’s own immediate context. To what extent can faith-based ethical values contribute to this new ethical imagination? Environmentalist Christians have tended to focus on the traditional sources of their faith, particularly biblical resources, in order to address the issues, but for those outside the boundaries of the faith – and even for some of us within them – this may not be convincing. It is time to look beyond these and to draw on other less orthodox resources in order to press the debate into more creative areas, but that must be for another occasion. Nicholas Stern has done us all a favour by writing this book and drawing out a whole range of important debates.